I met a force of nature at the Texas Book Festival a couple weeks ago. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. The force in question is e.E. Charlton-Trujillo (that first, lowercase “e” is an homage to e.e. cummings), the author of Fat Angie. I guess I was startled by Charlton-Trujillo in person because I’d found Angie, her shy, bullied protagonist, so very convincing.
Angie is not a force of nature, or at least she does not see herself that way. She is, in fact, fat. Her family fell apart when her basketball-star sister enlisted and then was captured in Iraq. She sealed her social doom when she charged onto the floor of the gym during a pep rally, wrists streaming blood. Rebellion Angie-style consists of subverting expectation on the bus, which she rides “with kids who were too young to have a car or too loser to score one. Any kid remotely as odd as Fat Angie consciously sat at the front of the bus in the hope that closer proximity to the driver would fend off the anticipated cackling, name-calling, and otherwise unpleasant actions. Not Fat Angie. She wanted to be a daredevil…a rebel…a girl against the grain, so she rode in the back.” Then KC Romance comes to town, an LA girl who speaks Weetzie Bat slang and who, unaccountably, seems to like Angie.
Charlton-Trujillo’s prose has all the muscular self-confidence Angie thinks she lacks. Perhaps channeling both cummings and Block, she fills her pages with startling and often funny wordplay. In an age dominated by bland, first-person narration, her fresh style stands out and grabs readers in the most pleasing way possible. When Angie’s “couldn’t-be-bothered mother” comes home from a business trip unexpectedly, a “blanket of uggh wrap[s] around the girl.” When Angie’s and KC’s eyes meet, the “moment [is] stellar odd, complete with racing pulse accessories in the geekness of Fat Angie.” She changes for gym in a toilet stall: “This action often made her feel much like Clark Kent changing from mere mortal to Superman. Today, however, she was feeling much less the super and more the Clark.”
It’s impossible not to love Angie. Throughout the book, she pursues a place on the varsity basketball team, a quest that seems to define “quixotic.” But she can handle a ball, and readers rooting for Angie (and who can’t?) have reason to hope. After power shooting 11 clean free throws, she heads to the key. “Stopping hard, jumping straight up, form fiercely flawless, she sunk a beautiful jump shot.” Catch that? “Form fiercely flawless.” How great is that alliteration there? And how many people would think to modify “flawless” with “fiercely”? Charlton-Trujillo distills all of Angie’s gorgeous determination into those two words.
So Charlton-Trujillo has written one heckuva book. A lot of people do that, but it’s what she’s doing now with her book that makes her a force of nature. Inspired by an isolated boy she talked to on a Texas school visit, she put her belongings in storage and embarked on the At-Risk Summer Book Tour, going from town to town to visit programs that serve at-risk youth—at no cost to them. She’s met with kids all across the country, empowering them to express themselves and find their own strength through writing.
The tour was just about at an end when I met her, and now she’s working on next steps. She’s planning a nonprofit called Never Counted Out to continue what she started with her guerrilla tour. With it she hopes to connect other artists with at-risk youth in their own communities or on tour in the same way she did this past summer. She also hopes to create an online magazine as “a safe place for young people to connect in a moderated forum.” A creative place that isn’t Facebook, in other words.
Mobilizing artists to connect intimately with troubled children on such a large scale is a huge project, one that may seem rather like tilting at windmills itself. But after meeting e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, I think she can pull it off. She is, after all, a force of nature.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.